Monday, August 4, 2008


I remember the electric impact when Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago was released in the early 1970s. It washed away lingering sympathy with the Soviet Union in many quarters of the western intellectual world, including the quarter that I inhabited, the child of ex-Communists who had left the party but had never quite abandoned their philo-Sovietism. There really was no excuse before, but afterwards there was simply no excuse for thinking that the Soviet Union, from its founding, had not been rotten to the core, and that the Communist Party was wherever it thrived was based on an evil, damnable lie. (This last point hasn’t quite made it to many historians of the civil rights movement, who continue to pile excuse on excuse for the behavior of the American Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s.) But the power of literature to change the world has perhaps never been clearer than in the case of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.

But a strange thing happened in the years after his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1974, his years of exile in the United States, and his return to Russia. He largely dropped from public view. Part of this was his choice. Part of this was the mixed reception of his later works. (I still think his greatest work was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch and the Gulag Archipelago.) But the bigger problem was the discomfiting discovery by western commentators that Solzhenitsyn was a fierce Russian nationalist, who refused to compromise his political stances for anyone or any reason. There are indeed problematic aspects of his political views—though I don’t think the accusations of anti-Semitism are accurate or fair---but the larger issue was that, despite Solzhenitsyn’s detestation of the Soviet Union, he was no fan of the west, or of the United States, or of the militantly aggrandizing anti-Communism that the United States tended to practice (and has now morphed into militantly aggrandizing anti-terrorism.) And once it became clear that Solzhenitsyn was not going to fit comfortably into western notions of how to fight communism, or deal with its successor states, he was largely marginalized and forgotten. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, was probably the greatest anti-Communist of them all, shoving posuers and pygmies from J. Edgar Hoover, Whittaker Chambers and William F. Buckley into the shade. But because his fierce anti-Communist was not pro-Americanism, he became forgotten in the United States. It was, in the end, not the United States, but the Russian people (and the Polish, Ukranian, Belarusian, Kazahistani peoples, etc), who won the Cold War.